Surrounded by scandal caused by his own deception, Oscar Wilde left this world with a legacy of often misunderstood wit, a brilliant collection of writing, and sordid tales of an extramarital homosexual affair. The playwright progressed from a fashionable, flippant fop immersed in London society to a man broken by the public discovery of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. In his prime, Oscar Wilde was a social butterfly, admired and accepted by an artistic circle until his illicit affair became public; throughout his plays, he mocked the same London society with which he himself was quite involved.
Within these plays, Oscar Wilde frequently created a character to represent himself, usually a witty, slightly devious dandy who could be a direct voice for the playwright. In An Ideal Husband, the characteristically clever Lord Goring cloaked wisdom in triviality, much like Wilde himself; in The Importance of Being Earnest, the deceitful but good-hearted Algernon embodied many of the qualities of his creator. In each of these plays, struggles within Wildes life often surfaced within the plot and dialogue.Order now
At the time they were written, the frenzied affair between Douglas and Wilde was at an apex, and the issues surrounding the situation–marital problems, conflicts with the government, and deception–permeated the works. The concept of deception woven throughout Oscar Wildes plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest both reflected and drew inspiration from the artifice within his own life. Within An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, deception pervaded the formation of both plot and characters.
Wildes self-referential Lord Goring flirted frequently with the concept of deception, though he is not the instigator of the concealment and craftiness around which the plot revolves. One critic “related Goring to the essential schizophrenia of his creator: careless wit and moral arbiter at one and the same time” (Stokes 163). Goring first explained to Sir Robert Chiltern, the main character who stood to lose everything in the exposure of a long-kept secret, that he “must begin by telling wife the whole story” (Wilde 58), but soon afterwards Goring proclaimed, “the truth is a thing I get rid of as soon as possible! (Wilde 63).
Lord Goring “deliberately tempt Lady Chiltern into sin” (Eltis 161), but his character did not create the intrigue that necessitated Gorings temptation of Lady Chiltern in order to preserve the Chilterns marriage. In contrast, The Importance of Being Earnests Algernon, while not technically the central character, was essential to the plot through his lies. Algernons imaginary invalid, Bunbury, created an excuse for him to pursue Cecily, and his appearance as Jacks imaginary brother Ernest perpetuated the confusion of the story.
Algernon deceived nearly everyone in the play, with the exception of Jack; the two men were close, without many secrets, and had “several things in common, most noticeably their commitment to deception” (Raby 60). Algernons careless lying left no damage in the end of The Importance of Being Earnest, just as Lord Gorings deception was for the best; in Wildes life, his deception was not so fortunate. Algernon and Lord Goring represented the playwright himself and showed his wishful thinking in the happy outcomes of their deceit.
While Lord Goring and Algernon both displayed many aspects of the deception Wilde emphasized in An Ideal Husband, the other characters symbolized, alluded to, and predicted much of Wildes struggles in his personal life. In An Ideal Husband, the serious threat to Robert Chilterns reputation loomed as menacingly as the serious threat to Wildes reputation if his homosexual relationship were to be found out.
Wilde also within the play alluded to events that occurred during the run on stage; at one point, Lord Goring commented, “Oh, why will parents always appear at the wrong time? “(Wilde 90). This question became ironic upon the appearance of Douglas father within Wildes life; Queensbury–Douglas father–wrote an abusive letter to his son explicitly denouncing his relationship with Wilde, threatened to make outlandish scenes that implicated Wilde as a sodomite (Beckson 298), and left Wilde bankrupt from court costs from his lengthy, painful trials (Holland 159).
Just as Wilde was beginning to become wildly popular and even wealthy, Queensbury precipitated his downfall (Holland 159)–certainly illustrating the bad timing that Goring alluded to. An Ideal Husband offered Wildes most serious and most closely relating to real life play on the subject of deception; one writer even went so far as to say that “the propensity for self-dramatisation which was so outstanding an aspect of Wildes character and which manifests itself in all his plays is perhaps present most insidiously in this play” (Bird 156).
Wildes fear most clearly exuded within An Ideal Husband because of its serious treatment of the topic of deception. The Importance of Being Earnest, while not the serious and clearly expressive work that An Ideal Husband was, made many important references to Wildes life and mentality during the last stage of Wildes life before his downfall. In this farce, characters lied on whim, without consequence or regret, and the two leading males, Jack and Algernon, frequently deceived in order to protect the women they loved.
Wilde may not have been unmarried, and his love may not have been a woman wanting to get married, but nevertheless, the concept of lying for a lover certainly seems pertinent in the context of Wildes furtive affair. As one reviewer put it, The Importance of Being Earnest “was, after all, the play in which Wilde completely hid his feelings, concentrating instead, through the role playing of Jack and Algernon, on the deceptions that his sexuality forced him to play” (qtd. Stokes 165).
Wilde cleverly contrasted the concepts of being earnest and of being deceptive within the play; as the title sang the praises of earnesty, very little of the dialogue was sincere. Confusion over names, family lineage, and even allegiances pervaded the plot due to the insincerity and outright prevarication of the characters. Despite the dishonesty within the play, Wildes hidden emotions regarding his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his public image were woven sincerely throughout the work.
Frequent references to the flaws of marriage, such as Algernons statement that “divorces are made in Heaven” (Wilde 70), revealed Wildes bitterness towards the institution. Despite the overtly happy ending, The Importance of Being Earnest contained so much deception and bitterness expressed through wit to create a sense of incompletion, dissatisfaction, and precariousness regarding the relationships between the characters, showing Wildes obvious struggle in his life with deception and relationships.
The deception in Oscar Wildes personal life certainly had an impact on the themes for his plays. Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884, apparently quite in love; he wrote to her shortly after their marriage, telling her that “the air is full of the music of your voice, my body and soul no longer seem mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours. I feel incomplete without you” (qtd. Holland 113).
This love seemed to fade, however; as Constance drew further into the world of motherhood, Wilde “still needed constant intellectual stimulus which as a bachelor he had found easily enough among the literary and artistic circles he frequented” (Holland 122), and Wilde turned to Lord Alfred Douglas for that stimulus. The illicit affair between Douglas and Wilde certainly provided inspiration for the playwright; the need to hide their relationship, stemming from not only Wildes marital vows but also the laws in England prohibiting male homosexual relations, gave him inspiration for four plays with a common theme of deception.
An Ideal Husband, the third one written, touche close on the secret private life of Wilde at this time, a secret life passed in private rooms and hotels, away from his home and his wife. And is there not a secret irony in the title of the play–An Ideal Husband–which the real Oscar certainly was not? (Bird 156) Wilde, just like the Sir Robert Chiltern of his play, was not only not the “ideal husband”, but even lied to his wife as well as society at large.
Wildes deception of society was necessary; discovery of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas would and did mean imprisonment as well as major tarnish on his reputation. Wilde also hid his true emotions and often his intentions from the people, writing plays that were “capricious, deceptive, and deliberately intriguing” (Eltis 132). Again, like Robert Chiltern, Wilde feared for his reputation, but instead of covering up the past at all costs like his character, the playwright wrote plays exploring deception and romantic relationships that helped him to express that fear.
As Stokes put it, “the final lesson to be drawn from these recent productions, appropriately paradoxical, is that the plays are, more than ever, inseparable from their authors experience, and depend greatly on our seeing that to be the case” (180). Both An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest drew their inspiration from the fear within Wildes personal life, and beyond the clever dialogue lay a reflection of Wildes emotions regarding his uncertain position.
The similarities between Wildes art and his life did, however, have a limit; in Oscar Wildes deception plays, a neat and happy conclusion left every character contented. Sir Robert Chiltern maintained the facade of honesty without compromising his newfound morals, his wife renewed her faith in and love for him, and Lord Goring ended up engaged to his love, Mabel Chiltern. Jack got his Gwendolyn, Algernon got his Cecily, and all were pleased. The deception earlier in the play was forgotten and left behind in the race for communal happiness.
These unrealistic endings appeared to be Wildes wishful thinking as much as an attempt to make the audience question our affinity for the deceivers. While the deceiver went unpunished, somehow we felt that justice had been served. Wilde set the plays up to make the audience empathize with Sir Robert Chiltern–checkered past and all–and with Algernon and his imaginary companion Bunbury. The overly simplistic endings could not have been merely Wildes attempt to force the audience to question that empathy, however; the unpunished deceit seemed to be a wish for his own painless redemption.
Unfortunately for the playwright, the resolution of deception was not so easily obtained in his personal life. Wilde, with his excesses and love affair exposed and prison sentence served, died poor and estranged from his wife and children (Holland 175-187). The happy endings he wrote for his plays were unrealistic not only as literature but also in his own enactment of the deception theme. Oscar Wildes plays frequently consisted of social criticisms and parodies; these imitations of life were joined by the theme of deception he drew from his more personal life.
Wildes art was often quite accurate in its imitation of life, and through this imitation Wilde voiced his opinion. The critical eye that summed up the absurdity of London society also searched inward to express the fear and hope that abounded from Wildes experience with deception. An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were not by any means exact accounts of Wildes life; to the contrary, the shared theme and attitude were the aspects of life that Oscar Wilde used to express his situation, as opposed to imitation through shared events and outcomes.
Art imitated his life in a much more subtle way, as would be appropriate for the clever playwright. The self-referential characters and related plots were a large support for the interpretation of Wildes emotions through his plays, but the subtler use of self-referential attitudes and related themes was the true voice of Wildes inner self. Perhaps every work of art chooses some way to express–and therefore imitate, in some fashion–the life of the artist, just as Wilde imitated himself in his deceptive art.